To grasp how much food finds its way into the dump, imagine for a second the volume of a full sports arena. One 90,000 seat-sized venue full of produce is what gets discarded every day in America. As much as 40 per cent of all food meant for sale ends up being tossed out. Personal consumption habits, overproduction, and aesthetic perceptions all contribute to a problem that, so far, has no end in sight. With excessive demand and wealth comes excessive waste, and as the richest nation in the world, America has unique challenges around how to deal with unconsumed packaged foods and produce.
The level of economic and environmental impact that food waste has is not sustainable for the long haul, but fortunately there are solutions.
Somewhere in the range of 63 million tons of food find their way into landfills each year. Of that, around 10 tons are caused by overproduction and the remainder is from either commercial or personal waste. The sheer amount is staggering, but there are other unintended consequences. Food waste can be considered a byproduct of inefficient chains of distribution, as we have more than sufficient quantities of food to feed the entire world, yet half the world lives in a state of food insecurity. Economics and the will of those who control the supply are what prevent distribution chains from reaching everyone.
Personal food waste accounts for the largest segment of total waste. This is fundamentally due to inefficient purchasing and consuming habits. More often than not, there is little to no planning before one heads to the grocery store. Once produce and other foods make their way into the home, poor preparation or storage can lead to waste. People often cook large amounts and then the leftovers go uneaten. Another factor that leads to perfectly good food getting thrown away is a misunderstanding of expiration dates. Adjusting our personal consumption habits is a way that everyone can start reducing the excess waste we are currently experiencing.
"Coming to understand expiration dates are vital in tackling the food waste epidemic. There are numerous different types of expiration dates and most consumers really don’t understand what they are or what they mean."
Next comes waste on the corporate level. Stores tend to buy excessive amounts of product, hoping to meet non-existent consumer demand. The companies that run grocery stores look at food like any other product. If they feel it has no commercial value, whether due to irregular shape or expiration date, they dispose of it. The infinite growth model decisively has a role to play. Often when faced with these surpluses, retailers choose to simply dispose of it. When asked, food retailers cite fears of being sued for donating food that may be passed an expiration date and cause someone to get sick. The dumpsters of retail super markets are often filled with high-quality food that may be near or past the expiration.
Coming to understand expiration dates are vital in tackling the food waste epidemic. There are numerous different types of expiration dates and most consumers really don’t understand what they are or what they mean. Just because stamp on a can of tuna is tomorrow’s date doesn’t mean it will go bad overnight. People often see a date and simply assume the food is bad when, in reality, this incorrect assumption is contributing to the problem.
Finally, we have waste caused by agricultural overproduction. Overproduction deserves a book unto itself. Though it only accounts for around 15 per cent of total food waste, its impact on the environment and food prices in certain markets make it a problem that has grown out of control. There are many reasons why farmers participate in overproduction and, as far as the consumer is concerned, aesthetics is a big one. Farmers are forced to overproduce to accommodate the uninformed populace who only want to buy produce that looks “good” as opposed to “bad”. To some degree, we have been conditioned to only buy the best-looking fruits and vegetables, and packaged goods with lengthy expiration dates. As much as 40 per cent of all produce grown is disposed of because it doesn’t meet our visual standards of culinary beauty. However, misshapen produce has no less nutritional value than their classical counterparts. There has been a surge in interest in the marketing of misshapen produce in an attempt to curb the problem; however, the practice is not widespread.
In 2013, The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations conducted a study that laid out the financial, environmental, and health-related cost of food waste in the world. The numbers across the board are so high that it is truly hard to take in. Over $1 trillion of food is wasted, totaling 30 per cent of the global food supply. Besides the retail losses, the FAO determined that an additional $700 billion is used for natural resources, with water constituting around $172 billion. Other costs include $42 billion in deforestation and a devastating $429 billion in losses related to greenhouse gases. The health care-related costs total more than $150 billion.
The FAO numbers have a sinister implication. If the $150 billion in health care costs, which is believed to be pesticide-related, represents the food that is wasted, the cost of pesticide-related illness totals over $500 billion for the global food supply. We have not yet even begun to touch upon the cost of lands actively destroyed by chemical fertilizer run-off and clean water systems that become contaminated. The US accounts for a total of around 31 per cent of these figures, making it the primary offender. Fortunately, these numbers haven’t gone unnoticed.
The Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture announced in 2015 a goal to cut food waste in half by 2030. The numbers they compiled in 2010 were equally as disturbing as those compiled by the FAO. They determined that each American was responsible for approximately 218.9 pounds of food waste. This is personal waste, aside from the already overwhelming corporate and overproduction numbers. They hope to cut this number down to 109.4 pounds, and all other waste, by 66 billion pounds per year. These goals may seem ambitious, and would require change on the part of everyone. However, as the need to preserve environmental and economic interests grows, it is a goal that is becoming more and more essential.
"The overarching solution is simple: change our habits, from the personal to the corporate levels, and create a culture of sustainability."
But how can these goals be achieved and the valuable resources we throw to the wind every year be preserved? The overarching solution is simple: change our habits, from the personal to the corporate levels, and create a culture of sustainability. It is much easier said than done, and requires a conscious shift in how we think about and approach our consumption habits and production methods. Overcoming the ugly food perception problem is paramount. Educating the public and incentivizing farmers to keep misshapen produce and end overproduction is an undeniable necessity. Exploring practices like vertical farming can help conserve land and water usage while implementing permaculture techniques to mimic more natural environments will alleviate some of the environmental impact. The key to these methods relies upon reducing production.
On the personal level, we can all do more. Look to curb excess purchasing, donate leftovers, learn about expiration dates, and make sure you are researching your food to ensure proper storage techniques. It’s important to remember that it’s possible to grow your own food. Indoor gardening has never been easier. These might seem like small and insignificant steps, but if everyone participated in working toward this new sustainable food culture, the goal of cutting waste in half could be achieved in half the projected time.